There comes a time in every car lover’s life when you can no longer delay the things that have spent way too much time on your bucket list. One of those items that’s been on my list for years is going to Le Mans. The time has now come to take that one off the list and so, on June 2, I will be flying to England to meet up with my friend John and his buddy Mike, and then the three of us are going to drive an RV down to Le Mans. We’ll get there on Wednesday June 7, in time to watch a few practice sessions, qualifying, and the race starting on Saturday. In the meantime, we plan to eat some great French food, drink more than a few glasses of wine, and bathe in a healthy haze of petrol fumes. What could be better?
This year is going to be especially special at Le Mans because it is the 100th anniversary of the original race. Because of WWII and a strike in 1936, this will actually only be the 91st running of the race, but who’s counting? It all started 100 years ago on May 26-27, 1923. That first race was run completely on public roads around Le Mans, France and was part of a three-race series called the Rudge-Whitworth Triennial Cup, with each race being 24 hours long. The winner was whoever ran the longest total distance over the course of the series. The series idea was abandoned in 1928 and Le Mans became a stand-alone race with the winner being the team that ran the longest distance in 24 hours.
Endurance, Not Speed
The thing to understand about Le Mans is that this race is not run for a finite number of laps, like most other races. It is run for a specific amount of time and whichever car drives the longest distance in that time wins. This has led to some unfortunate results. In 1966, Ken Miles was leading the race towards the end in his Ford GT. Two other Ford GT’s were in 2nd and 3rd place and Ford wanted a photo finish of the three cars crossing the finish line as a group. Miles was instructed to slow down to the others could catch up. Unfortunately, since Bruce McLaren started further back in the field in his GT, it meant that he had actually driven a longer total distance than Miles and was declared the winner, even though Miles crossed the finish line first.
The Le Mans Start
For years, the race started with the famous “Le Mans start” where cars were parked along the edge on the track, the drivers lined up on the opposite side of the track, and when the flag dropped, they ran across the track, hopped into their cars, started the engines and drove off. This meant the cars had to be fairly easy to get into and had to fire up quickly. Unfortunately, it also meant drivers would delay belting in until they were well down the track. In 1969, driver Jackie Ickxx decided he’d had enough of the safety issues this type of start created, so he walked across the track and took his time doing up his belts. He was almost hit by a competitor while walking but went on to win the race anyway.
The Le Mans start was modified for the 1970 race and then abandoned in 1971 in favor of the current rolling start where cars run a formation lap behind the safety car before getting the green flag at the start/finish line. In this case, though, the “green” flag is actually the French tricolor flag.
The idea behind the race, from the very beginning, was to prove endurance and reliability, not top speed. And because the race was always run for 24 hours, fuel efficiency became a factor as well. Fewer re-fueling stops means going farther. In fact, during the oil crises of the 1970s, a special class known as Group C was introduced that limited the amount of fuel that could be used in the race. Group C was later dropped but fuel economy is still important to reduce the time spent refueling.
Another early rule adopted to prove endurance and reliability was the requirement to turn engines of during re-fueling. This means cars need to restart many times during the race. Again, reliability and endurance is the focus.
Over the years, the racetrack has changed quite a bit and is now run on what is called the Circuit de la Sarthe, which runs for 13.626 km (8.467 mi). This is one of the longest racecourses in the world. The circuit consists of long lengths of public roads combined with dedicated racetrack. One of those public roads forms what used to be the longest straight of any racetrack: 6 km (3.7 mi). This straight was so long that in 1988, Roger Dorchy achieved 253 mph in a WM P88-Peugeot. To reduce speeds, two chicanes were added in 1990 leading to 3 relatively equal segments. Even still, speeds over 200 mph are regularly reached.
Many different types of cars have raced at Le Mans, from production models to full prototypes showcasing the latest in powertrain and vehicle technology. For 2023, there are 4 classes of racecars: LMH, LMDh, LMP2, and LMGTE AM. Each team uses 3 drivers
Image via Toyota
LMH (Le Mans Hypercar) and LMDh (Le Mans Daytona h) form the Hypercar class. LMH is a fairly open class leaving scope for a variety of architectures which could use a front axle hybrid system. LMDh on the other hand requires the use of one of four sanctioned chassis: Dallara, Multimatic, Ligier or Oreca. The chassis contains everything except for the engine, bodywork and hybrid system. Each team must supply their own for these components. Engine power is limited to 697 hp, RPM’s are capped at 10,000, the engine cannot weigh more than 396 lbs and there is a 110 decibel pass-by noise limit.
Image via Porsche
For 2023, there 16 entries in this class. You can identify them by the red background around the car number. Lap times are generally sub 3:30.
Image via Alpine
This class of cars is covered by regulations first brought in in 2017. Teams have a choice of four chassis form Oreca, Onroak Automotive, Dallara, or Riley-Multimatic and all cars are fitted with Gibson 4.2l V8 engines. The idea is to keep costs low enough that private teams can afford to participate. The FIA WEC tries to keep the four chassis as close and competitive as possible. If one particular chassis is clearly dominant, the constructor is allowed to make modifications for the next season to make things more even. It really comes down to the driver and the team skills to win this class.
For 2023, there are 24 entries in this class. You can identify them by the blue background around the car number. Lap times are just above 3:30.
Image via Corvette
These are the cars that look and feel like production cars. 2 door road-legal sports cars are featured here. This is where you will see the Porsche 911’s, Ford GT’s, Corvettes, and Ferraris. Normally aspirated engines can be up to 5.5l while turbocharged engines are limited to 4.3l.
As with the Hypercar class, FIA WEC tries to do what they can do to make the racing competitive and entertaining in the sports car class as well. To that end, cars that are obviously superior in practice and qualifying are subject to something called Balance of Performance (BOP). Based on publicly available mathematical formulas, faster cars are saddled with additional weight, air restrictors, fuel tank capacity reductions, rear wing limitations, or other technical adjustments deemed necessary to slow them down to try to keep the field even as much as possible. It’s no fun watching one car run away with the race (unless its your car, of course).
Porsche And Cadillac Return
Image via Porsche
This year will also mark the year that Porsche returns to the top class at Le Mans. Since taking a break after the 2017 season, they will enter the LMDh class with a new twin turbo V8 Hybrid car. Additionally, Cadillac will be racing in the top category as well with their top prototype car.
A NASCAR Stock Car At Le Mans
[Ed note: I’ve been twice and made a feature-length doc about the race, so I’ll also be happy to answer some questions. I’m extremely jealous, though, as this is shaping up to be the best race in years and this whole section I’m going to add because it’s one of the reasons why – MH] What am I most looking forward to at Le Mans? Since 2012, Le Mans has offered a spot in the race to a car that doesn’t fit in any category, which they call: Garage 56. This was originally conceived for the DeltaWing project and this year is being used for the a NASCAR Cup Car being run by Hendricks Motorsports and raced by the trio of NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson, Le Mans-winner Mike Rockenfeller, and F1 champ Jenson Button. That’s right, a Camaro ZL1 at Le Mans, y’all! I can’t wait.
What Do You Want To Know
I can’t wait to go and see this spectacle and I want you all to come along. What do you want to know? What specifically interests you about the race that I can check out while I’m there? I’ll be posting during the week to keep you up to date so let me know what’s on your mind.
Top photo: Matt Hardigree
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